Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris is using the arson deaths of an East Baltimore family of seven as the backdrop for a video being shown to officers at daily roll call.
As the charred rowhouse at the corner of East Preston and Eden streets - where an arson fire Oct. 16 caused the deaths of Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children - flashes on the screen, Norris makes it clear that criminals won't control city streets.
"The arson murders of the Dawson family painfully demonstrate the lengths to which thugs will go to protect what they wrongly believe is theirs," Norris says in the five-minute video. "That's why it's so important for us to apply suffocating pressure on the gangs that brazenly sell their poison. We apply pressure by identifying who the players are. Who pitches. Who touts. Who enforces. Who stands lookout. Who controls the corners.
"Make life miserable for these players. ... Stop, debrief, interrogate, issue citations and arrest members of gangs for urinating, drinking alcohol, driving without seat belts, playing loud music, littering and the like. This judicious application of life enforcement makes it uncomfortable, and ultimately impossible, for gang members to conduct illegal business."
As Norris speaks, the background shifts from the burned-out rowhouse to the funeral for Angela Dawson and her children at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in East Baltimore. As Mayor Martin O'Malley walks in, the caskets become visible. Later, the funeral procession is shown, ending when the hearses turn in to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.
The point is clear: Officers must be vigilant about arresting criminals. He also wants residents - people like Angela and Carnell Dawson who reported illegal drug activity in their neighborhood - to know they can assist police without paying the ultimate price.
"At the same time, you send a message to the lawful members of the community who are cooperating and aggressively addressing the problems that plague their lives," said Norris, who remains on screen throughout the video. "Take this tragedy as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment that we will not permit citizens to retreat into their homes in fear."
The seven family members in the Dawson home escaped shaken but unharmed from an earlier attack, in which someone threw two Molotov cocktails through first-floor windows of the home Oct. 3. In the days after the killings, Norris and O'Malley appeared to take the deaths personally.
"Sometimes events like this remind us of why we do what we do for a living," Norris said in an interview. Officers must realize that even the simplest police work is important, he said.
Norris begins the video by talking about an officer who questioned a man sleeping in his car Oct. 8. Finding no reason to detain the man, the officer let him go. It was later determined that the man was John Allen Muhammad, one of two men suspected in the Washington-area sniper killings.
Norris says on the video that the routine stop is now a key piece of evidence against Muhammad because it places him in Maryland at the time of the shootings.
"The reason we ask for documentation is not to generate paperwork, but for this reason," Norris said. "You never know who you're going to run across."
Norris said he has gotten positive reaction from the video and a few others he has taped in the past six months, including one emphasizing safe driving. "I turned out [to visit] three platoons in two days recently, but I can't get to 3,300 police officers," he said. "With the videos, I can get to everybody."
John Harrington Jr., Angela Dawson's brother, learned about the video last week.
"I applaud the man," said Harrington, a corrections officer. "Law enforcement sometimes uses tragedies as an effective tool to make people aware that life is fragile."